Communicating in multiple languages is a growing necessity in a large range of industries, regions, and organizations.
In Europe alone, where there are 24 official languages, over 213,000 companies operate in at least two countries.
In my role as a communication expert, reaching a Pan-European audience requires agile communication techniques and an empathetic approach. Engaging audiences, whether they’re internal staff members or the general public, can be bolstered by communicating directly to them in their own language.
As a Belgian, I’m no stranger to linguistic complexities. In our country of just under 11.5 million people, we have 3 official languages: Dutch, French, and German. Add to that the lingua franca of English and we regularly work in four languages.
Looking internationally, Europe is not alone in its linguistic diversity. Each continent has its own unique considerations when it comes to communicating across cultures, borders, and languages.
Many companies, especially those with multinational presence, choose to operate fully in English. It serves as a shared, widely understood language, both internally among the workforce and externally while doing business with companies from other countries or continents.
But even if a business decides to communicate only in English, the day-to-day reality will remain nuanced. Within Belgian communication teams or other departments, for example, I’ve always experienced a mix of languages spoken on a daily basis, or even within the same conversation.
What are the benefits of communicating in multiple languages?
Many office workers come from international environments. They may be used to working in multiple languages, especially English. The same should not be assumed for remote and front-line workers who may work predominantly (or solely) in local languages.
But for all types of workers, we should never assume they are comfortable with receiving information in a language other than their mother tongue, even if the official company language is English.
Furthermore, just because you speak English doesn’t mean you want to work in English all the time. Working in one’s second language requires added energy and can sometimes cause miscommunication, errors, or confusion.
For linguistically diverse staff, I believe that communicating in their preferred language is vital to ensure understanding, build connections and trust, and boost employee engagement.
How to communicate effectively in multiple languages
Simply put, if you want to reach your employees, try to communicate in their preferred language, or the official languages of their region or country, as much as possible.
In my opinion, for organizations operating with multiple languages, communication teams need to be linguistically diverse. A team should ideally have a native speaker in each key operating language. If no native or near-native speakers are part of the team, consider using external resources.
Don’t rely on auto-translation. Always run text by a native speaker, especially for important communications. Auto-translated text is not engaging. It can come across robotic, awkward, and unprofessional. It can also lack the necessary nuance, be misleading, or even insulting.
Even if you’re working under high amounts of pressure or nearing a hard deadline, make sure you allow sufficient time – and budget – for proper translation, proofreading, or at the very least a sense check by a native speaker.
I’m often working with external partners to help develop communications for other European markets. Word-for-word translations can only go so far. Context and culture have a huge impact on how a message should be structured to maximize the audience’s comprehension.
Analyzing text from a local perspective – with nuancing and cultural differences in mind – is key to conveying the right messaging.
Consider all audiences: Inclusive communication
While developing communication materials, it’s always a matter of considering your audience and the way they digest information to decide on channels and formats. In multinational and multilingual business environments, language is another factor to consider at all times.
For example, if you decide to develop a video to convey an official business communication, you may have to think about the language used in the video and whether or not to caption it.
Over the past few years, subtitling on internet videos has seen a massive push in the right direction. We’ve all seen it on our social media feeds, on YouTube, and news sites. In my opinion, this evolution has been an amazing step in the right direction for inclusivity. Not only that, but the ability to engage with a wider audience has also made my job a lot richer.
Subtitles for different languages
For me, the most obvious and necessary use of subtitles is for people with hearing impairments. Subtitling is absolutely necessary to reach these people and they should always be considered when making video or audio content.
Non-native speakers also benefit from reading subtitles along with listening to spoken language in the video. Captions can make a video understood by more people, and therefore, reach a wider audience.
Finally, subtitling alleviates a bit of stress for the people in the video, as you may allow them to speak in the language they feel most comfortable in. Needless to say, the spontaneity and engagement of what’s being said benefits tremendously from this too!
Tools for multilingual communication
Throughout the array of available communication channels, there are many useful tools, techniques, and processes to make multilingual communication successful.
There are many digital translation tools, such as Deepl or Google Translate, and grammar checkers available online. No matter the tool you choose for day-to-day translation support, consider a paid account for your organization. They usually have features such as company-specific glossaries and formality settings, making the tool more consistent for future translations across the business.
Even though online translation tools are quick and increasingly precise, it’s still not good enough on its own without proofreading from a native speaker.
I recommend using auto-translation only with certain types of communication, generally less formal messages, such as emails among colleagues. When the communication is meant for official publication or for external use (e.g., a brochure or newsletter) or of a sensitive nature (e.g., an announcement coming from higher management), work with a native speaker.
Employee platforms are extremely effective at efficiently dispatching multilingual communications. User-profiles of each employee can set their language of preference by default. When it comes time to relay messaging, the communication in their chosen language is automatically sent to them.
Most employee platforms, such as iTacit and SharePoint, have support for multiple languages. Users can easily select the default language in which they want to read posts.
When it comes to direct employee engagement through online platforms such as Yammer or Workplace, employees can comment on and share posts in their own language. In this scenario, an auto-translate feature for the reader is very useful. Of course, they aren’t perfect, but the use of technology can bring teams together across linguistic divides, a truly remarkable modern advancement to boost employee engagement, culture, and community.
Turning our gaze externally, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media channels all have their place in the channel mix that we communication professionals use to reach and engage with customers, external stakeholders, and (future) employees.
You can schedule and publish multilingual posts on your Facebook company page via Publishing tools. However, don’t rely on the autogenerated translations. Rather check or insert the correct translations (done by a native speaker) manually.
For LinkedIn, you can integrate different languages for the name, description, and tagline of your company page. For other content, using showcase pages can be a smart way to target other language or geographical groups, but make sure you have the resources to properly manage another page.
If you decide to communicate in multiple languages within one Twitter profile, I recommend making a thread to add on to the main tweet in the other languages. For Instagram, most multilingual companies tend to put both languages within the same caption.
When creating social media ads, try to filter your target audience as specifically as possible, and have translations done or checked by a native speaker.
Email marketing platforms
For direct email marketing campaigns or newsletters, platforms like MailChimp have intuitive and easy to use multi-language functionalities.
Sending mailings in the subscriber’s preferred language is a great way to help boost open rates. Not only that, it eliminates the sometimes sensitive decision regarding which language to include first in multilingual emails.
Building stronger communities through multilingual communication
Communicating to your staff and external stakeholders in their preferred language can create new opportunities, build more meaningful connections, and boost engagement. Always be sure to use sound communication practices in every language you’re working in. As I’ve stressed, try to work consistently with a native speaker or professional translator for business messages – especially critical communications.
Multilingual communications will enable your organization to reach a more diverse audience and maximize staff and stakeholder engagement.